Wuhan Lab Leak Or Natural Outbreak? Three Years On, Covid Origin Theories Remain Inconclusive

More than three years after Covid-19 emerged, there is no conclusive evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic originated naturally or in a laboratory. However, the extent of Chinese coronavirus research, cover-ups, and circumstantial evidence means the burden of proof is now on those outright denying a possible lab origin of Covid-19.

Virologist Shi Zheng-li with a colleague in the a lab of Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China

In February 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) said the Chinese Covid-19 containment measures have “vital lessons” for the world. The WHO noted that Chinese authorities could bring down hospitalisations and infections to negligible levels within weeks.

“China’s uncompromising and rigorous use of non-pharmaceutical measures to contain transmission of the Covid-19 virus in multiple settings provides vital lessons for the global response,” said WHO in a report, adding that China  “reversed” the escalating community spread. 

In December 2022, the Chinese Covid-19 containment measures hailed by WHO stand dismantled following public outrage unseen since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Chinese hospitals are currently overflowing with the sick and crematoriums are also reported to be stressed. The future trajectory is not hopeful either as experts make grim projections

The Economist projects that up to 1.5 million could die in China from Covid-19 in the next few months. The Lancet published a report projecting 1.3-2.1 million deaths. 

The February 2020 WHO report also made other assertions that have not stood the test of time, such as saying that SARS-CoV-2 —the virus causing Covid-19 disease— is not airborne and that Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning it spreads from animals to humans.

After two years of the WHO report, it’s well-established that Covid-19 is an airborne disease and there is no proof —or evidence— that Covid-19 originated in an animal. On the contrary, there is now a strong circumstantial case for laboratory origin of Covid-19. 

Why is Covid-19 lab origin being discussed?

More than three years after the first Covid-19 outbreak in China's Wuhan, there is no conclusive evidence of how Covid-19 originated. It was initially said with a fair degree of certainty —but without evidence— that the virus jumped into humans from bats. 

Even though there was no evidence for a viral reservoir —original pool of virus from where it spread further— or for bats transmitting the virus, the WHO in February declared Covid-19 to be zoonotic.

“Covid-19 is a zoonotic virus...Bats appear to be the reservoir of the Covid-19 virus, but the intermediate host(s) has not yet been identified. However, three important areas of work are already underway in China to inform our understanding of the zoonotic origin of this outbreak,” said WHO in the report cited above. 

Over two years later, the intermediate host is yet to be identified. This is very strange for a disease of natural origin and runs afoul of the trajectories of earlier diseases like SARS and MERS — from the same family as Covid-19. For example, the animal source for SARS in 2003 was identified within two months. 

Moreover, SARS-CoV-2 was “pre-adapted” to infect humans, unlike SARS. 

“SARS was observed to adapt under selective pressure that was highest as it crossed from Himalayan palm civets (intermediate host species) to humans and diminished towards the end of the epidemic…In comparison, SARS-CoV-2 exhibits genetic diversity that is more similar to that of late epidemic SARS-CoV,” said a 2020 study by Alina Chan and Ben Deverman of Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and Shing Zhan of the University of British Columbia. 

This meant that while SARS had to adapt to be able to infect humans, SARS-CoV-2 was able to infect humans from the beginning. 

Unlike SARS or MERS which had multiple outbreaks, Covid-19 had a singular outbreak at Wuhan. Incidentally, Wuhan is home to the global hub of coronavirus research. 

By 2019, Chinese researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) were collecting, storing, and experimenting with coronaviruses for almost decade. This research, called “gain of function” research, and related cover-ups by Chinese authorities, is central to calls for a proper scrutiny of a potential lab-origin for Covid-19.

The Chinese gain of function research 

WIV’s Shi Zhengli is called the ‘Bat Woman’ for her work on bat coronaviruses. 

With US-based EcoHealth Alliance’s Peter Daszak, she collected 630 types of coronaviruses during 2010-15, often travelling to remote caves and mines. She also collaborated with US-based Ralph Baric, a gain of function specialist. It's the kind of research where a pathogen is modified to make it more virulent or contagious.

Notably, there are hundreds of coronaviruses, but only seven are known to infect humans. However, gain of function research has been used to give non-human coronaviruses the ability to infect humans. 

In the 1990s, Baric and Boyd Yount of the University of North Carolina "trained" a mice coronavirus to infect hamsters. In 2006, Baric patented a technique through which a virus could be modified “invisibly” — meaning it would leave no trace that it has been edited. 

In 2015, Baric collaborated with WIV’s Shi. They published a paper in which they showed that they fused a bat coronavirus and a human coronavirus and showed that the resultant virus could infect mice as well as humans. Simply speaking, they caused infection in human cells from a bat virus.

Though the Chinese authorities say first Covid-19 cases emerged in December 2019, the US Department of State maintains Chinese gain of function researchers were infected with Covid-like symptoms in November. 

Citing US officials, Vanity Fair reported, “Three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, all connected with gain-of-function research on coronaviruses, had fallen ill in November 2019 and appeared to have visited the hospital with symptoms similar to Covid-19.”


Later in 2020, it was found that one of the 630 coronaviruses that the Chinese collected and worked upon was the closest ancestor of SARS-CoV-2. This virus, named RaTG13, is 96.2 per cent similar to SARS-CoV-2. The difference between the two is that the RaTG13 lacks the spike protein to effectively infect humans that SARS-CoV-2 possesses.

Therefore, while there is no evidence for an animal host of SARS-CoV-2, there is evidence of a 96.2 per cent similar virus. Moreover, it’s now known that the Chinese kept this information hidden in their databases and were working on this virus.

Data scientist Francisco de Asis de Ribera in July 2020 published information gleaned from WIV papers published online that showed that the Chinese were working on RaTG13 at least until 2018. The revelation went contrary to what WIV collaborator Daszak had said earlier. Newsweek reported, “Had the WIV been actively working on RaTG13 during the seven years since they discovered it? Peter Daszak said no…Ribera discovered that scientists at the lab had indeed been actively studying the virus in 2017 and 2018—they hadn't stuck it in a freezer and forgotten about it, after all.”


Chinese cover-ups, denial of information 

Microbiologist Rossana Segreto found that they could not find much about RaTG13 because the Chinese had renamed it in their databses as BtCoV-4991. Fellow DRASTIC researcher Prasenjeet Ray, better known by his Twitter handle The Seeker, found two Chinese thesis detailing that six miners had been infected in the mine in Mojiang county, Yunnan where RaTG13 came from. Four of them developed SARS-like antibodies and three eventually died, found Ray. 

Shortly after Ray published his findings, the Chinese closed access to all their databases. 

What it means is this — There was an episode of SARS-like illness in 2012 from the closest related ancestor to SARS-CoV-2. The Chinese were aware of it. They worked on the virus for years. They withheld this information from the world. They renamed it so the outside world could not learn much about it. When DRASTIC revealed it, the Chinese closed their databses. 


The following action by Chinese authorities also strengthen the case against them: The Chinese had the SARS-CoV-2 genome by December 27, 2019, but they only made it public on January 11, note Alina and Matt Ridley in their book VIRAL: The Search for the Origin of Covid. Instead, the book notes, the Chinese authorities shared it with testing kit manufacturers by December 3. 

The world had no idea about Covid-19 but the Chinese were already seeking testing kits.

UN, US government investigations validate lab-origin case

After the WHO outright declared it to be a zoonotic disease, influential scientists like Daszak snubbed any suggestion that the virus might have originated in a lab. However, scientists like Alina and a small group of journalists and open-source researchers kept bringing scientific arguments favouring an inquiry into the possibility of lab-origin.


The biggest push came in May 2021 when US President Joe Biden tasked the US intelligence community, composed of 18 agencies, to investigate Covid-origin. The report was submitted to Biden in August. 

In its report, four of the 18 agencies assessed with 'low degree of the confidence' that Covid-19 had a natural origin, one assessed a lab-origin with moderate confidence, two did not rule out genetic engineering, and the rest could not reach an assessment. 

While the report did not reach a conclusion, it brought lab-origin arguments from the margins to the centre. It was now on the table. Since then, the lab-origin argument has been validated by WHO and multiple US government investigations.


Here is what these investigations found:

WHO reversed its stance on Covid-origin

After denying the possibility of lab-origin of Covid-19 for two years, the WHO in June reversed its stance. 

The WHO in a report said "key pieces of data" to explain Covid-origin were missing and the WHO remained "open to any and all scientific evidence that becomes available in the future to allow for comprehensive testing of all reasonable hypotheses".   

Jean-Claude Manuguerra, the co-chair of the 27-member advisory group behind the report, said some scientists were "allergic" to the idea of the lab leak theory and they needed to be "open-minded".


"All hypotheses must remain on the table until we have evidence that enables us to rule certain hypotheses in or out," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus after the report. 

US Congress reports

The US Congress has released two reports on Covid-origin — one by the health committee of the US House of Representatives and the other by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. 

The health committee report 

The House health committee has an ongoing bipartisan investigation into the Covid-19 origin. Though the bipartisan committee’s final report is awaited, the Republican members of the committee have released an interim report.


“It appears reasonable to conclude that the Covid-19 pandemic was, more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident. New information, made publicly available and independently verifiable, could change this assessment. However, the hypothesis of a natural zoonotic origin no longer deserves the benefit of doubt, or the presumption of accuracy,” concludes the report released in October.

The report also flags quicker vaccine development in China. It noted that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, developed with the benefit of pre-existing expertise and the support of Operation Warp Speed of the US government that poured in billions and quickened regulatory clearances, took 103 days to reach clinical trials, whereas the similar Chinese vaccine did so in just 67 days. 


The report raises the question whether Chinese scientists accessed the genome required to make vaccine before it was released to the wider world. 

The question appears to be relevant as there is evidence —as noted by Alina and Ridley in their book— that the Chinese gave themselves a headstart in developing testing kits by sharing the genome with manufacturers but withholding it with the rest of the world. 

House intelligence committee report

The House intelligence committee report, also released by the minority Republican members, is much more damning. It links Covid-19 to not just a laboratory, but to the Chinese bioweapons program. 


“Based on our investigation involving a variety of public and non-public information, we conclude that there are indications that SARS-CoV-2 may have been tied to China’s biological weapons research program and spilled over to the human population during a lab-related incident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV),” says the report.

The ‘non-public information’ means the classified intelligence with the US agencies that has been accessed by the committee but cannot be yet made public because of its sensitive nature. This makes the report much more significant than the health committee report which was produced on the basis of publicly available material. 


The report also reveals that US universities diverted US government funds to the Chinese bioweapons program. Earlier, it has been known that scientists such as EcoHealth’s Daszak have transferred US government grants to Chinese researchers. WIV's Shi herself received $1.2 million in US government funds. However, the revelation that the funding went to the Chinese bioweapons program is new. 

“At the Committee’s request, Government Accountability Office is conducting a comprehensive accounting of all public funds the United States Government disbursed, whether directly or indirectly, from January 2014 through December of 2021 to AMMS and the WIV. In November of 2022, GAO provided Committee staff an update on its work, confirming that grant money from HHS components flowed to the AMMS Fifth Institute via subawards from certain U.S. Universities,” says the report. 


The Fifth Institute of the Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS) is a known bioweapons facility of the Chinese military, formally called the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). The 'HSS' is the US Department of Health and Human Services.

What’s next for US Covid-origin search?

The Republicans, comprising China hawks, won the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections and incoming chairman of the committee, Mike Turner, has said he will subpoena the US intelligence community to produce classified intelligence that could shed light on the question of Covid-origin.

In its report, the committee also flagged the US intelligence committee’s report to Biden. It noted that ‘low’ confidence expressed by four agencies in a natural origin actually means little as, in intelligence parlance, ‘low’ means questionable intelligence. 


“Low confidence generally means that the information’s credibility and/or plausibility is uncertain, that the information is too fragmented or poorly corroborated to make solid analytical inferences, or that the reliability of sources is questionable,” says the definition of ‘low’ confidence of intelligence agencies. 

In the backdrop of this weak basis of agencies’ confidence in the natural origin of Covid-19, and their findings of partial classified intelligence, the Republicans are set to press the US intelligence community to dig deeper.

“I didn’t believe the administration’s unclassified reports are reflective of the administration’s own classified reports. So we start there. We think the American public is given a misconception of what our intelligence community knows,” said Turner in an interview, adding that he would push the intelligence community for transparent intelligence reporting.